Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Seven Centimeters

What a spectacular shot. It's a dramatic moment in Lawrence of Arabia. We've been following a certain character through a particularly difficult, waterless ordeal in the desert. Then, off in the distance a tiny speck appears on the line between sand and sky, still too small to be confirmed as anything other than a mirage. But now, just as Maurice Jarre's triumphant score swells on the soundtrack, we can just barely make out that the speck has become a moving object, approaching the camera, surrounded by a screen-full, a world-full, of empty space. Here's a freeze-frame of the moment:

Oh, you say you can't see the speck on your computer screen? Funny, neither can I. Such are the limitations of standard DVDs. No Blu-Ray release of Lawrence of Arabia has occurred, nor is there any officially on the, ahem, horizon. It hardly needs reminding that for the overwhelming majority of us, home and mobile video have long since become the default methods of viewing movies more than a month or so old. No wonder; digital and video have made the alternative that used to be the norm, the theatrical revival screening, seem inconvenient and expensive by comparison. For those lucky few of us who live in places like New York, Paris, Berlin and even San Francisco, however, classic films still live and breathe in theatres, where their makers expected them to be seen.

It's hard to imagine a better time for a San Francisco movie lover to partake in the by-now almost subversive act of watching a great classic film in a cinema, than when our city's architectural pride and joy, the Castro Theatre, devotes its screen to a 70mm film series, as it will for eight days starting this Saturday night, when it plays West Side Story, which repeats on Sunday. Monday and Tuesday bring Jacques Tati's Play Time, which I'd like to see in 70mm at least once every year. Another movie I can never tire of plays Wednesday, Thursday and Friday: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. The series wraps up the following Saturday and Sunday (June 11 & 12) with twice-daily showings of Lawrence of Arabia.

Yes, all four of these titles are available on DVD. One of them (guess which!) is even available as a Blu-Ray. But it's still a hotly-debated topic whether or not Blu-Ray can look as good as a pristine, well-projected standard (35mm) film projection. I don't want to get too technical here, but I'll just say that I'm aware of almost* no-one who's claiming that digital formats can compete with 70mm film, projected from strips about twice as wide as in a standard film reel, and with roughly four times as much resolution. The clarity of 70mm is simply unbeatable in my book.

The Castro is the only San Francisco theatre equipped to show classic films in 70mm, but this is their first such series in two years. It was intended to be even more ambitious as originally planned. Two films, Tron (which I've seen in eye-popping 70mm with a sold-out Castro crowd) and It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (which I've never seen) were hoped to be part of the series, but because the Castro's 70mm projection equipment needs an expensive repair before it can handle certain prints (getting technical again, they can only show prints with DTS Audio timecode at the moment) those two titles had to be canceled. I hope audience turnout for this series encourages the Castro management that there's an audience hungry for 70mm, making the prospect of shelling out for the repair a no-brainer. If all goes well, maybe we'll be able to see Tron and other films in 70mm relatively soon after all. Take that, DVD!